Earlier this week, I was in Geneva for the first UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. It was an extraordinary experience. One thousand participants, from all over the world and from all walks of life, gathered in the Palais des Nations to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Scarcely a year has passed since the Guiding Principles were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council, emphasizing states’ duty to protect human rights – including the duty to prevent abuses related to business activities – and enshrining the foundational principle that business enterprises should respect human rights.
Over two days in Geneva, representatives of business, governments, international organizations and NGOs spoke about the work they are doing to implement the Guiding Principles. I was inspired by stories of individual dedication, and also by accounts of how business enterprises are engaging with civil society to develop practical and effective ways of ensuring respect for human rights.
I saw none of the division and contention that have plagued the international debate on business and human rights for too long. Certainly, there was criticism of business and of course there was criticism of governments, but it was largely civil and overwhelmingly constructive. The good spirit evident in the discussions augurs well for the tradition of multistakeholder dialogue that led so successfully to the Guiding Principles.
Amid the good news, I heard the voices of victims of business-related human rights abuses. Too many have suffered dreadful harm and too many have been denied justice. I left Geneva in no doubt that providing access to effective remedies remains a major challenge for the international community.
I have also left Geneva with genuine optimism for the progress which can be made if work to implement the Guiding Principles continues with the same diligence and conviction as has been demonstrated by so many over the past year, especially if we all continue to work together.
During one of the closing sessions of the forum, another corporate lawyer remarked that, since becoming involved in the field of business and human rights, he has made many new friends. That is a fine note to end on. Or, as Winnie the Pooh once said to Piglet, “You know, if we didn’t stick together, we’d be very lost indeed.”
Author: Antony Crockett is a senior associate with international law firm Clifford Chance LLP practising in the field of business and human rights. Clifford Chance is a Strategic Partner of the World Economic Forum.
Image: Figures of people gathered in a meeting in Berlin REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz